Analysis |

Biden Does What His Three Predecessors Talked About Yet Failed to Do

Biden's Asia visit is all about preparing for 'the China era': turning the 'pivot to Asia' into viable foreign policy. The presidents of Russia and China played an unwitting part as well

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
U.S. President Joe Biden. Making a historic pivot to Asia.
U.S. President Joe Biden. Making a historic pivot to Asia. Credit: Ärtwork: Anastasia Shub. Photos: Wikimedia Commons Zbitnev/Shutterstock EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/ REUTERS Andrew Harnik /AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Following a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Monday, shortly after being hosted by Emperor Naruhito, U.S. President Joe Biden was asked whether he would be willing to “get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that.”

Yes, Biden answered, unflinchingly and unequivocally, doubling down on his October 2021 statement that caused a frenzy in Washington’s foreign policy ecosystem.

“You are?” the reporter double-checked.

“That’s the commitment we made,” Biden confidently stated, departing sharply from America’s decades-long policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan.

This wasn’t just about Taiwan, though. The president’s retort is nothing short of an official enunciation and launch of a new era in U.S. foreign policy. The China era.

It was an instructive and telling statement that encapsulated the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific strategy and China-first policy.

At the risk of sounding prematurely dramatic, Biden’s Asia trip could in hindsight constitute an inflection point in U.S. foreign policy, shaping global politics and security in a way that has not been seen since the end of the Cold War.

It also represented a striking contrast. The United States never made such a commitment to Ukraine, ostensibly on the grounds that Ukraine is not a member of NATO and there is no defense alliance between Kyiv and Washington that requires or triggers active U.S. military involvement.

Yet there is also no such pact between the United States and Taiwan, which further highlights the scale of the shift of emphasis in U.S. policy.

U.S. President Joe Biden reviewing an honor guard in Tokyo on Monday.Credit: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Linking the Ukraine crisis to America’s new China-focused policy initially seemed like a blurry geopolitical puzzle. But then, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless and calamitous management, came a eureka moment: not only is Ukraine patently not a distraction from the U.S.’ Asia policy and orientation – it is critical to its success.

Ukraine not only serves as a model for China-apprehensive Asian countries. It also places China in a strategic predicament over its alliance with Russia, leaves it isolated, and boosts the confidence of Eastern and Southeastern Asian countries who are observing NATO’s cohesion and America’s resoluteness, much to China’s detriment.

Three successive U.S. presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump – vowed and committed to a new policy shift, identifying China as America’s main competitor, rival and, under some adverse scenarios and circumstances, possible enemy. All three were distracted by different issues and crises or failed to formulate a coherent China policy, each for distinct and peculiar reasons. From Day One of his administration, Biden sought to transform the “pivot to Asia” concept into a phased but detailed, viable and implementable foreign policy.

He wasn’t the first president to perceive China as America’s greatest challenge in the coming decades. But Biden was certainly the first to craft an appropriate policy, focus intellectual policy thinking, redefine and reprioritize defense and economic interests, shift resources and commit to expending political capital.

His foreign policy stemmed from a clear, concentric, strategic reading of America’s place in the world, in the Pacific Rim and with regard to China. Here was an economically ascendant superpower – China’s current major economic problems notwithstanding – expanding its outreach through an ambitious strategy (the Belt and Road Initiative), intent on flexing diplomatic and possibly military muscles, presenting a tangible, geographically broad, multidimensional and ominous challenge.

Just connect the dots spread along the last 18 months since Biden took office: the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; the gradual disengagement from the Middle East; security pledges to South Korea, Japan and Taiwan; convening the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Washington; reviving the Quad – short for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, but better defined as a fledgling alliance of the United States, India, Japan and Australia; and initiating AUKUS: a new defense alliance between Australia, Britain and the United States.

A few years ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the Quad as nothing but “sea foam” (here now, gone soon). Now, though, with Biden convening a Quad summit in Tokyo on Tuesday as the culmination point of his Asia trip, Beijing is foaming at the mouth about the Quad, describing it as a great danger to China and the region – and, the inevitable victim of such whining, “stability.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Beijing in February.Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/AP

The Quad was rekindled in 2017 after a decade’s hiatus in which Australia pursued a semi-independent path that explored the possibility of forging a better relationship with an economically ascendant and expansive China. Once Australia concluded that this was an exercise in futility and, simultaneously, China was exploring a more assertive and aggressive agenda throughout East and Central Asia, the South Pacific and as far away as Africa and Europe, the Quad was reborn.

The United States officially describes the Quad as “a premier regional grouping in the Indo-Pacific.” But in effect, it represents – and can potentially develop into – something much bigger, broader and more muscular. It may be become, as China says, “an Asian NATO” – a term that takes on a whole new meaning and dimension since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Until now, the Quad largely avoided major security issues, taking into consideration the different interests and traditional inclination of the various countries – most recently the Ukraine crisis, where Japan and Australia sided with the United States while India maintained its traditional ties to Russia but retained its Quad dialogues and consultations. Instead, it focused on climate change, the COVID pandemic, health, technology and cybersecurity issues.

That is about to change.

The Biden administration reactivated the partnership and pledged to expand the security cooperation. It installed an annual leaders’ meeting, and defense and foreign ministers’ meetings. Agency cooperation between the four countries was also established, including the Quadrilateral Strategic Intelligence Forum with the heads of the respective members’ security services, and an annual naval exercise.

Once the Quad was revived, the United States initiated AUKUS, the trilateral security partnership with Britain and Australia that also involves arming the Australian navy with nuclear-powered submarines. AUKUS may base much of its operational intelligence on Five Eyes, a signals intelligence-sharing alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the United States.

U.S. President Joe Biden shaking hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Monday.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

An aggrieved China sees the Quad as the Americans’ idea of “ganging up” in the Asia-Pacific region and “provoking confrontation.” What worries China most is the United States laying the foundations of modeling the Quad after NATO, particularly in the context of the new and improved NATO emerging from the Ukraine crisis.

What especially annoys China is the fact that India is part of that foundation. India’s size, border with China, gravitation away from Russia and toward the United States would pose a potential threat to China in that, with due respect to its size and population, geopolitically it essentially has no allies – certainly not powerful ones.

There was Russia, but then came its Ukraine invasion. In China’s strategy, Russia was a junior but essential ally to balance and eventually challenge the U.S.-dominated world order. On the other hand, China’s vast economy is heavily reliant on Western economies, markets and financial institutions.

So, President Xi Jinping thought he could emulate Mao Zedong’s Third Front policy from the 1960s, when Mao managed to alienate both the United States and Soviet Union at a time when China was far from being a superpower. Now a self-perceived superpower, it needs a balancing act, yet Putin turned from asset to liability.

With India playing a larger role in the Quad, the Russia-induced strategic predicament China finds itself in is exacerbated: Xi cannot endorse Putin, but equally cannot disassociate from him. That paradox is at the heart of Biden’s thinking and current visit.

China’s current rhetoric and official policy is almost grotesquely anti-American. The war in Ukraine, COVID-19, the Hong Kong uprising, the Uyghur minority, Tibetans, polluting Chinese youth with decadent culture: according to China, these are all the United States’ fault. The anti-American rhetoric barely conceals the issue: China realizing that however strong it may think it is, it is being outmaneuvered by the United States and its allies – and all because Xi tied himself to Russia, ignoring advice to the contrary.

In the United States, the perception was a mirror image: if Russia succeeds in Ukraine, Chine will be emboldened and grow more assertive. If Russia is defeated and NATO strengthened, Asia will look favorably on America, and China will have to recalibrate.

There will be distractions. There will be time- and energy-consuming crises elsewhere. There will be criticism over the merits of his China policy. But one thing seems crystal clear: In Asia this week, Joe Biden steered America’s ship in a new direction.

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